(U.S. Air Force)

(Tribune News Service) — The U.S. military has two battles it’s fighting in Africa, Assistant United States Attorney Mark Pletcher said Friday in San Diego federal court. One is against extremist groups such as Boko Haram and al-Shabaab, and one is to win the “hearts and minds” of the African people.

So when a building in rural Africa constructed by a U.S. military contractor falls down, or wind blows its roof off, “the opposition uses it as propaganda,” Pletcher said.

That’s what happened on multiple occasions — at an aircraft hangar in Niger, a shooting range in Senegal and a school in Togo — due to fraud perpetrated by a U.S. military contracting company and its CEO, Micheline Pollock, according to a plea agreement.

Pollock, a Canadian who pleaded guilty in October to one count of conspiracy to defraud the United States, was sentenced Friday by Chief U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw to time served after being in custody since September 2020. She was also ordered to pay nearly $7.2 million in restitution.

Sabraw said that while Pollock and her company had done “amazing” contracting work for the military in Afghanistan, that changed when the company expanded to Africa.

“You cut corners (and) it snowballed to outright fraud,” Sabraw told Pollock. “That damages the reputation of the United States.”

According to her plea agreement and sentencing documents, Pollock was CEO of Dover Vantage Inc., a construction company incorporated in the U.S. with headquarters in Dubai. After launching the company in 2009, the company completed several projects in Afghanistan, where Pollock, a former member of the Canadian Army Reserves, had previously spent time working for nonprofits promoting women’s rights.

In 2011, the company began bidding on jobs in Africa, winning 22 construction contracts with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over the next seven years for military and humanitarian projects.

“But work on civilian projects in remote areas of Africa proved far more challenging than operating on Western military bases” as the company had done in Afghanistan, Pollock’s defense attorneys wrote in a sentencing memorandum.

That’s when the fraud conspiracy began, Pletcher argued Friday during Pollock’s sentencing. “It may have started with cutting corners,” Pletcher said, but ultimately advanced to “out-and-out fraud ... on project after project, year after year.”

The conspiracy lasted from at least September 2011 to February 2018, according to the plea agreement, and included submitting fraudulent quality-control documents, concrete strength tests and material certification records.

“Due to the fraudulent conduct, many of the structures were so poorly constructed that they collapsed,” Pletcher wrote in a sentencing memorandum. “Most of the other structures are now unusable.”

The fraud cost the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Navy Facilities Engineering Command at least $9.5 million, according to the plea agreement.

“I brought disgrace to the United States,” Pollock said Friday, adding that she was “deeply” apologetic and “truly ashamed to be here.”

She said she abused the power given to her and her company “because of pride and ambition. I compromised my integrity.”

Devin Burstein, one of Pollock’s defense attorneys, said she “lost her moral compass.” But he also described Pollock, a mother of three, as a remarkable woman who has spent her time in federal custody mentoring other women, something that friends told the court in support letters that she’d done much of her life.

Sabraw said Pollock’s rehabilitation in custody “is remarkable. You’ve returned to the person you were before you lost your way.”

Pollock’s plea agreement stipulates that one of her co-conspirators was her business partner and husband, who has not been charged.

Pollock’s case was the first to arise from the “Africa Strike Force” initiative based out of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Diego. The initiative was developed “to combat fraud and corruption as the United States expends military and humanitarian resources across Africa,” according to a statement.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to grant an interview with prosecutors from the initiative or answer questions about when it began and why it’s based in San Diego. In a news release, the office pointed to a second case arising from the initiative, which involved a French company with concrete contracts at a naval base, airfield and the U.S. embassy in Djibouti.

The company, Colas Djibouti, agreed to pay more than $12.5 million in penalties, forfeitures and restitution, and entered into a deferred prosecution agreement with the government stipulating that prosecutors will drop criminal charges against the company if it fulfills its portions of the agreement.

©2023 The San Diego Union-Tribune.


Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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